AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to an uproar in France started by one of the country's most beloved actors. Gerard Depardieu says he's moving to Belgium to avoid paying a new 75 percent tax on the super wealthy. His actions have divided France and drawn extra attention to the socialist government's new tax policy.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more from Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CYRANO")
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's Gerard Depardieu in one of his most acclaimed roles in the 1990 film "Cyrano de Bergerac." The internationally renowned actor has played in hundreds of films over the last decades.
The recent uproar began just before Christmas, when it came to light that Depardieu bought a home in Nechin, a drab Belgian village less than a mile over the French border. Depardieu admitted to establishing a foreign residence to escape new French tax rates. That prompted this response from Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault.
JEAN MARC AYRAULT: (Through Translator) It's pathetic, really. Paying taxes is an act of patriotism and we're asking for the rich to make a special effort here for the country. It's just pathetic.
BEARDSLEY: French President Francois Hollande is counting on the rich to help bring down the deficit. But Depardieu shot back in an open letter published in a major Sunday newspaper.
(Reading) I'm leaving because you consider success, creativity and talent, grounds for sanctions, said the actor. Depardieu said he had paid more than $190 million in taxes over the last four decades. He said he no longer recognized his country and offered to surrender his passport if he was indeed so pathetic. Though the prime minister said he regretted his choice of words, the battle lines were drawn.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: A debate over patriotism, values, equality, and responsibility has exploded onto the holiday scene in France, dominating the airwaves and animating many a Christmas dinner. And every day, a new celebrity or politician weighs in on the issue. Some accuse Depardieu of being a traitor. Others call him courageous. The French Culture Minister called his behavior scandalous, considering he had benefitted so heavily from state subsidies to the film industry.
The gargantuan blond thespian, known for his real-life excesses, seems to leave no one indifferent. While some disparage his headline-grabbing, drunken antics, others consider him all the more lovable for overindulging in good food and wine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LAST METRO")
BEARDSLEY: Another glamorous film icon, Catherine Deneuve, defended her friend and colleague. Deneuve and Depardieu have acted together in dozens of films, including the 1981 classic, "The Last Metro."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LAST METRO")
BEARDSLEY: Deneuve said the prime minister's comments were unworthy of a head of government. And to Depardieu's critics, asked: Who are you to judge? In a reference to the French Revolution, Deneuve added: What would you have done in 1789? I still tremble to think of it.
Parallels to hunting down the wealthy then and now have surfaced. Edouard LeClerc is the head of a giant supermarket chain.
EDOUARD LECLERC: (Through Translator) Whether you like Depardieu or not is not the point. It's this government's fiscal campaign against those who make money in this country. Maybe it's not 1789, but there will be plenty of rich people leaving France. And there is a frightening populism on the rise.
BEARDSLEY: The debate has spilled over France's borders. Belgium's Finance Minister welcomes any other French citizens who want to join Depardieu. And President Vladimir Putin offered him Russian citizenship.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.